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March 01, 2013

Book Review: A Short & Happy Guide to Elder Law

Charlie Sabatino

The 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal once apologized about his writing saying, “I have made this longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

Pascal had something in common with lawyers, as most lawyers can make the same apology. Readers who have sought self-help books on the law will know what I’m talking about. That’s why it is refreshing to see an appetizer-sized guide to the law—in this case Elder Law—that bucks the usual inclination of lawyers to tell you soberly and methodically everything you need to know.

A Short & Happy Guide to Elder Law is a surprisingly comprehensive tasting menu of legal information served on paper plates with beer on tap. The chapters digest easily whether you read them straight through or graze on them at your leisure. The book succeeds pretty well as explaining key points about the problems seniors and their families face and how they can use the law to solve them.

The two well-qualified authors are University of Arizona law school professor Kenney Hegland and nationally known expert in elder law Robert Fleming; they already have two earlier versions of an elder law paperback to their credit. They confess in the preface of A Short & Happy Guide to Elder Law:

We wrote a book. It was too long, too detailed, and too boring. Folks who needed the information weren’t getting it; families would suffer without having a resource to turn to. We decided to do this book—shorter, less detailed and, hopefully, spiffy.

This one dishes up 33 bite-sized chapters in 154 pages, covering everything from the emotional barriers to confronting elder law issues, to financial issues, housing, health care, capacity, abuse, sex, caring for others, estate planning, and dying—more like the complete blog on elder law.

Brevity does have its disadvantages. The content only takes you only so far. Some topics, in my opinion, get too little attention, such as powers of attorney, health care benefits, and nursing home quality of care. Yet, for those who prefer full course servings of the law, there are other elder law guides out there. This one is for readers who want a few key basics, some kernels of good advice, and a dash of off-beat humor mixed in. Humor? The authors explain how Social Security computes your benefits:

A train leaves New York going West at 60 mph. Two hours and 13 minutes later, another train leaves Los Angeles, going East at 62 mph. What is the capital of Nova Scotia?

The basic idea is to determine one’s average monthly salary and then give you a percentage of that figure. It assumes a work history of 35 years: total earnings are spread out over this period.

One blip in the writing style was its shifting audience. Most of the time, the authors address elders or their families, but at other times, they are suddenly addressing lawyers who are counseling families—this focus shift is a little erratic and unnecessary. Best to leave the lawyers to their own books.

All in all, many readers will find this elder law light, less filling, and more satisfying. ■

Charlie Sabatino

About the Author: Charlie Sabatino is Director of the Commission on Law and Aging at the American Bar Association in Washington, DC.